There is little doubt that the 2021 Chicago Bears best hope for a return to the playoffs – and perhaps even a few wins if they get there – rests with a return to it’s 2018 form as the NFL’s best defense.
And it’s not shocking that most of the talk on that topic from the glass half-full folks starts with what may be the best linebacking group in the NFL led by four-time All Pro Khalil Mack, former first-team All Pro Robert Quinn, Roquan Smith, who earned his first All Pro nod as a second teamer last season, and team captain Danny Trevathan.
There is also significant chatter about a secondary featuring safeties Eddie Jackson and Tashaun Gipson but lost its best player in All Pro Kyle Fuller, leaving plenty of talented competition at cornerback but no sure things.
No one seems to talk about the defensive line though.
It’s a group with an extremely high ceiling – perhaps another one of the best in the NFL – but is also riddled with question marks begging to be answered.
At the beginning of this league year the Bears literally had only three linemen under contract, including Eddie Goldman, who hasn’t played since 2019 after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Akiem Hicks is one of the best interior lineman in the game, but he missed 11 games due to a devastating elbow injury in 2019. He missed just one game last year, but was hampered most of the second half by a hamstring. And there were some reports he might not be back this season at 31 years old.
In spite of those concerns, new defensive line coach Chris Rumph said he knows what he has in Hicks.
“Man, Akiem, first thing you see is his size. He’s a big bully out there,” Rumph said. “He’s a guy that’s like a big brother out there, that once he’s on the field with you, you sort of feel protected because big brother has your back.
“He has to understand he has a name out there now, so we’re going to have to be strategic in what we do and how we use him.”
And that’s what could make Goldman, if he returns in good playing shape, one of the keys to this year’s defense.
Linemen tend to be interchangeable in a 30 front, but Goldman is one of the rare ones who can two gap over the nose and will demand double teams making it near impossible to double Hicks as well.
Bilal Nichols struggled in Goldman’s role last season, but once he was able to move off the nose, Nichols began to flash star power both as a five technique and in 40 fronts, where he consistently popped up in the opposing backfield during the last third of the season.
Re-signing Mario Edwards Jr. wasn’t a sure thing due to the salary cap. He will miss the first two games due to a suspension, but he is the best pass rusher of the group.
Then there’s the addition of Angelo Blackson.
“I think he gives us a little more juice,” Rumph said. “We’ve got some big guys that I like to call them big grinders up in there. And Angelo, he’s a bigger body, but not quite as big. He gives us just a different curveball. We’ve got those big guys in there, throwing fastball, fastball, and then we have a guy like himself, and Mario Edwards, guys that are changeups.”
Seventh-rounder Khyiris Tonga projects as another true two gapper, giving comfort there is depth now behind Goldman.
Of course it was Hicks, Goldman and Nichols as starters in 2018, but Nichols was a rookie fifth-round pick and Goldman was still emerging in just his fourth season.
This group can be special if these six play to their ceilings, and this season could be very special again for the Bears ‘D.’